How is remote work working out for women?

The world of work after the Covid-19 pandemic has not returned to the previous ‘normal’, as some expected. If anything, it seems to have changed for good, with a large majority of business leaders expecting that employees will not return to offices at the same rate as before the pandemic. 

Research suggests that the ability to work remotely and flexibly has become important for women, in particular. A 2021 survey showed that 80% of women ranked remote working as a top job benefit, while this figure dropped to 69% for men. This is unsurprising given the many advantages for women of working remotely. However, the experience of remote work during the pandemic also highlighted some pitfalls specific to women. In this article, we review each side and lay out some strategies that employers can use to create a fair work environment for female workers.

Remote work is helping working women

On the whole, there are many factors that have combined in the post-pandemic remote professional environment that can help women in their careers. 


Greater personal flexibility

One of the biggest perks of remote work is that it can help both men and women create a better work-life balance for themselves. However, this probably applies more to women, in particular working mothers, whose disproportionate contribution towards household work has tended to impede their professional advancement. According to Jerry Jacobs, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “If women feel disproportionately responsible for the household activities and for parenting, working remotely makes life a whole lot more flexible.” It can do this by allowing a more flexible working routine, saving time commuting, and being present around their families throughout the day.  


Managing health better along with work    

Medical research suggests that about 14% of women and girls report absenteeism from work or school due to menstruation-related issues. Fatigue can lead to days off and hence lower productivity. This can in part be avoided by women’s ability to work remotely and better manage symptoms. Similarly, remote work can help pregnant women and their employers better plan for, and manage, their work and overall careers trajectories, in the absence of a strict requirement to be physically present in an office.      


A more neutral and safer workplace

Remote work settings in general tend to focus more on results than personalities or office politics. With companies concerned more about productivity, traditional biases against women can potentially be overcome through a remote model. It can also help reduce the effects of bias caused due to physical appearance, and the extra burden often placed on women in traditional office settings to look and dress in certain ways. In addition, remote work has the potential to reduce issues relating to sexual harassment in the workplace, which has a higher incidence for women than men. Women who work remotely are also more able to contact their human resources department with such issues.     


Higher retention and advancement 

A more conducive work environment due to these factors seems to be translating into tangible career benefits for women. According to research commissioned by Catalyst, a global NGO, women with children who could work remotely were 32% less likely to say they intended to leave their job in the next year, compared to those who had to be physically present in an office. Apart from higher retention rates, evidence suggests that remote work also makes it more likely for women to attain leadership positions, than when working in more traditional settings.

Remote work has some pitfalls for women

While the post-pandemic remote workplace offers new opportunities, many issues from the traditional office environment persist.  

Speaking up and being heard

Women sometimes find it harder to speak up in meetings or to their bosses than men, especially in male-dominated workplaces, and they may not be listened to as carefully. This issue seems to have persisted in remote work settings too, with a 2020 survey of 1,100 of working adults in the US finding that 45% of women business leaders thought that it is difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. According to the same survey, 20% of women said they had felt ignored or overlooked by their colleagues during video calls. 

Difficulties in networking and finding mentorship

Prior to the pandemic, there was evidence showing that women often find it harder than men to build networks and develop advocates for support during their careers. For example, the Women in the Workplace 2018 report by McKinsey, a consulting firm, found that women were more likely to report that they, “never have substantive interactions with senior leaders about their work” compared to men. In a post-pandemic remote or hybrid workplace, especially where more men than women return to the office, it is possible that the existing imbalance will widen and further diminish opportunities for in-person networking.  

Questions about commitment 

In the traditional culture of work, women are often assumed to be less committed to their work and careers than men, especially if they’re mothers. This has been borne out by social science research on stereotypes in professional settings. Additionally, women can sometimes be encouraged to take accommodations that can slow down or even derail their careers, such as moving to part-time work. In this context, working remotely increases their risk of being viewed as less committed than their in-office colleagues, since work away from the office can be less visible to their peers and managers.

How to improve remote work for women

Women have much to gain from the remote working model. However, there is a risk that gender equality could recede as a strategic priority as companies focus on other post-pandemic issues, and the pitfalls highlighted above could linger on. For women to make the most out of remote work, the following four key themes can serve as important planks in companies’ overall remote work management strategies. 

Measure productivity objectively

To make sure that women are not being penalised disproportionately for remote work, companies have to measure work outputs, not just inputs, i.e. how much time is spent doing the work. Setting clear job descriptions and measurable performance indicators is critically important in this regard.  

Treat remote workers equally

As companies continue to adjust their work policies post-pandemic, they need to avoid establishing two-tier systems that favours those who can show up in the office more, which is more likely to be men. Systems should be created to ensure that remote employees, both men and women, have equal access to those in leadership positions. 

Set clear remote work guidelines

To make sure that women are not disadvantaged, companies need to set clear boundaries around how and when employees are expected to communicate. Otherwise, the flexibility of remote work can simply result in more work, especially for women with childcare responsibilities. 

Design appropriate benefits policies 

Giving both men and women paid parental leave would avoid what typically happens, which is that is the burden of caring for children falls disproportionately on women. Childcare support can also help women better manage the extra work involved in child care, along with their work.

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